One of three reports prepared by journalists from rural communities in Costa Rica as part of our current edition, “The Lineup.” The goal: showcasing their perspectives on how three different cantons—La Cruz de Guanacaste, Pococí de Limón, and Osa, Puntarenas—experienced Costa Rica’s Election Day.
The national elections held in Costa Rica on Sunday, February 6th, 2022 resulted in a historic low for voter turnout in La Cruz, Guanacaste. Of the canton’s eligible voters, 58.19% stayed home, according to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE): more than half of cruceños did not exercise their right to vote. On the streets that day, the lack of interest in voting was visible. It looked like more people were heading to the beach than to the polls.
La Cruz is the tenth canton of the province of Guanacaste, constituted as such since 1969. It’s located in the north of the country, about 60 kilometers north of Liberia, our provincial capital. The border with Nicaragua is just 20 kilometers away. The population has traditionally made its living from agriculture and livestock, but tourism has made recent inroads. This has included large-scale tourism and megaprojects that concentrate wealth and do not benefit the most residents. According to the 2011 INEC Census, only 10.3% of the population of La Cruz had completed high school—in a community where English is essential to work in tourism. You can’t aim for a job in a five-star hotel without that knowledge.
In a canton with just over 28,000 inhabitants, many families have directly suffered the consequences of the Sandinista Revolution in the 1970s and the war of the Contras, or Nicaraguan Resistance, in the 1980s. The canton has been forced to experience the consequences of being a wartime border zone.
La Cruz has also been a key building block in the construction of Costa Rica’s modern democracy. Blood was shed here in 1856 at the Battle of Santa Rosa, which drove out U.S. filibusters. Battles in the 20th century included the Battle of the Ariete in 1919, during the Sapoá Revolution against the Tinoco dictatorship, and also the 1948 Counterrevolution and the battles waged out of Nicaragua by followers of Calderón, including the Invasion of 1955.
As a communicator and correspondent, I spend a lot of time talking with people and observing local commentary on social networks. This has led me to the conclusion that hope in political leaders has been largely lost here. Residents of La Cruz say that every four years, candidates for the Legislative Assembly and the presidency show up full of promises that they never keep. They don’t return until the next campaign.
Public investment does not often show up here either, despite various needs in La Cruz. There are some communities—for example, Belize and San Rafael—that do not have drinking water, and there is a lack of support for the community water associations, or ASADAS. There’s a lack of investment from the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) to bring electricity to the communities that aren’t yet connected, and internet to communities still offline. More community health teams, or EBAIS, are needed, and there is no hospital. The community has the Ministry of Public Education (MEP) for additional resources for school maintenance, but without success; sports and community infrastructure are also deficient.
We’ve also experienced high unemployment, which has reached 30.5% in our province, according to INEC’s Continuous Employment Survey. This has increased due to the COVID 19 pandemic, and so has crime. Every day, we see more cases of theft, domestic violence, drug trafficking, drug addiction, hired killers, and corruption. Nobody reports these, and if they do, those efforts seem to have no effect. That’s led to fewer and fewer people taking the time to file legal complaints.
These gaps persist despite the fact that tourist traffic through the Peñas Blancas border station generates billions of colones in tax income for Costa Rica. More than 50% of the canton’s territory is made up of protected areas, which do a lot of good for our natural resources; however, the country and the world don’t repay the canton for helping to protect this natural heritage.
Manuel Méndez says he’s not sure what the solution is. He’s a pensioner and community leader who has always been involved in the social area of the canton, working with several social organizations.
“Costa Rica lost its way. At this moment there are no clear objectives,” says Manuel, adding that “the country is like a cart, stuck in a swamp, and I don’t know who can come and get us out of this quagmire.”
Luis Alonso Alan Corea, mayor of La Cruz, said recently on his Facebook profile: “There is no abstentionism here. What we have is disillusionment and distrust in a State that has forgotten the border and coastal territories—a totally centralist State that sees us from afar, and for which we have never been a priority. It is evident that they have turned their backs on the cruceños. In an unequal Costa Rica, there are many people here who suffer from the lack of conditions, opportunities and decent services. Here, Costa Rica is not so rich. Here there is no abstentionism: there’s a lack of energy to go out and vote”.
In this perspective, abstentionism is the only form of protest that can express disappointment and mistrust in a failed state that has forgotten the border and coastal areas. However—as a communicator involved in the events of the canton for more than 15 years and owner of Éxito FM Radio, covering the reality of the canton for local and national audiences—I believe that not all is lost. We must fight for a better canton. Much of the solution to this problem lies in the people themselves who are involved in all these development processes.
What will it take? Making sure that the community participates in decision making; involving us in creating a comprehensive development plan; sparking interest in common topics; informing community members about what’s going on. We must not let a few make decisions for many. If we want to seek inclusive rural tourism development, which I consider to be a way out of this critical situation, it is essential to understand the real interests of external actors who are influencing—for example—concessions and construction of coastal tourism megaprojects.
It takes the creation of development associations, and participation in meetings organized by the Chamber of Commerce and Tourism of La Cruz, which seek to unite local merchants and small tourism entrepreneurs. (To participate, contact Marina Peña Cerdas, 8838-9639 or [email protected].)
Manuel Méndez says that although La Cruz faces many challenges that La Cruz faces, part of what has to change is the mind of the voters.
“I am worried about the loss of values,” he says. “We have to work together, worry about others’ problems, which is everyone’s problem. Globalization has put us at a crossroads where only a few control and benefit from our wealth. We are a rich country, but poor in mind. We have to change our mindset.”